Becca Stevens incorporated astute, philosophical lyrics into songs in the folk-jazz vein during a compelling performance in Pittsburgh on May 23. (Photo: Courtesy Universal Music Classics)
“Mmm-hmm… mmm-hmm…” With that sensuous, murmured affirmation, repeated rhythmically, the singer-songwriter Becca Stevens began her song “I Asked” on May 23 at Pittsburgh’s James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy.
In her strong but vulnerable soprano, she sang: “I asked my love/what do you need/ to make your wild heart/beat,” accompanying herself only on the charango, an Andean 10-string lute, on which she played an intricate, beguiling counter-melody line before the members of her namesake band joined in.
Stevens has performed this song, from her critically acclaimed third album, Perfect Animal (Universal Music Classics), in many contexts over the last couple of years. It has an undeniable emotional urgency and pleasurable tension-and-release, no matter whether she plays it solo or with a large world-percussion ensemble and three back-up singers, as she does on Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner, Vol. 2. (The remarkable live-in-studio video of the Snarky Puppy version has been viewed nearly 400,000 times on YouTube.)
Stevens played the Pittsburgh gig before a small but enthusiastic audience, with a stripped-down version of her band: Chris Tordini on bass and vocals and Jordan Perlson on drums. (A fourth bandmate, pianist-accordionist-vocalist Liam Robinson, was unavailable that evening.)
In this performance, the music often sounded the way Appalachian folk songs might if they were given astute, philosophical lyrics suggestive of romantic yearning and nature’s magic, and reharmonized and played by jazz musicians of enormous skill and subtlety.
In a former era, Stevens might have been considered a “folkie.” But in the 1960s heyday of folk music, the idea of folk musicians going to a conservatory to study jazz would have been considered pretty far out; times have changed.
The band’s sound is strikingly original and flexible: On their second album, Weightless (Sunnyside), the folk roots are more obvious in the band’s acoustic settings; on Perfect Animal, the sound is just as quirky, but denser and more electric.
Notwithstanding the folk leanings of the band, all three of the musicians present at the Pittsburgh show are in-demand jazz players. In addition to her appearance with Snarky Puppy, Stevens has sung with Billy Childs’ Laura Nyro Reimagined project, pianist-composer Taylor Eigsti, bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and singers Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin, with whom she formed the group Tillery.
Bassist Tordini, in addition to his longtime collaboration with Stevens, works with drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Matt Mitchell; drummer Perlson has played with pianist Bobby Avey and alto sax master Rudresh Mahanthappa.
There’s an invigorating freshness and idealism in Stevens’ songwriting, in which twisty melodies, bleak and poignant, are illuminated by unexpected chords and shifting meters. Stevens is also one of the most fearlessly innovative writers of choral parts, with frequent use of call-and-response and fugue-like structures.
Her vocal harmonies favor austere 2nds and 4ths, sometimes resolving, sometimes not. Although the songs worked their usual magic in the trio format, with excellent backup singing by Tordini, Robinson’s third voice and evocative accordion were missed.
After opening with the lovely, nature-inspired song “Tillery,” with lyrics by American poet Jane Tyson Clement, they played “I’ll Notice,” an original from the 2011 album Weightless, featuring Stevens playing a charmingly off-kilter ukulele. The program also included the hypnotic “Imperfect Animals,” for which she switched to a reverb-laden Stratocaster, and her fervent, idiosyncratic takes on Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ ’Bout You” and Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna.”
She also featured new originals: “Both Still Here” (a love song from an upcoming project she calls “Regina”) and “The Muse,” a song she wrote with folk-rock legend David Crosby that will appear on new albums by both artists.
In a DownBeat Players profile in January 2015, Stevens said that, despite her frequent collaborations with jazz artists, she wants to make sure she doesn’t get pigeonholed as a “jazz vocalist.” As long as she continues to write such blazingly original tunes and sing them wholeheartedly, she can rest easy.